ARTWORK isssue 200, September 2017
THE EDINBURGH Art Festival (EAF) has the opportunity, and responsibility, to make Festival visual arts better than ever before. With a reported budget of £735,969, this year's EAF presentation for the Festival's 70th anniversary was lukewarm, mundane and disappointing. Moreover, after 14 years, it has become too selective, with aesthetics getting in the way of inclusivity.
The Edinburgh Festival is above all about inclusion: an all-embracing, exciting, delicious spicey mixture.
Edinburgh's three week bonanza is no place for a narrow, clique-ridden, élitist presentation. No place for spotlighting primarily obscure, out-of-the way conceptual environments or self-indulgent videos accompanied by esoteric, art-speak text which no self-respecting visitor will ever read.
The average tourist expects and requires an easy presentation of all available exhibitions and events so they can visit easily.
Unlike the Fringe, Edinburgh's art world is not big. It is however a broad church, ranging from the traditional to the cutting edge, from painting to sculpture and installation, from national galleries to commercial galleries, small workshops or studios. This is what visitors come to explore.
Funded as it is by public money, it is not for EAF to sit as judge and jury, deciding what sort of art should be included in their bespoke guide, which reduces our National Galleries and Museums to 'partner' level while excluding the prestigious 175 year-old Scottish Gallery, the Royal Scottish Academy, the Fine Art Society (dating from 1876) plus completely omitting many galleries young and old.
EAF's charges – £1000 for a mention in their brochure – are bad enough. “Too much for little return,” one director told me. But their selection process is scandalous. Yes, decide on quality, on high standards, but not on style, on category. It's also hugely detrimental to Scotland's art world.
Once the pop-up shows and events fade away after their few days in the sun, stalwarts like the Open Eye, who provide an exceptional standard with no subsidy whatsoever, are left to help artists emerging, mature and old.
When did all this happen? Who allowed it to happen? Why no uproar?
EAF began as a homegrown, loose amalgam of unpaid volunteers who had the simple, obvious idea of tying the visual arts together via the galleries while encouraging a use of new spaces: churches, libraries, warehouses, etc. The printed programme was small, cheap. Everyone chipped in.
I have heard many and varied complaints. Costing £165,700, the EAF commissions programme (excepting Paterson's Chessels Court structure) was also especially poor.
The visual arts are slowly sinking at Festival time, crowded out by comedy and gimmicks. It was not always so. In the 1980s art exhibitions featured on the front of the official Edinburgh Festival brochure. Can someone please tackle the festival director and, as was the norm, get the National Galleries back in that brochure?
The vast majority of visual art events, unlike concerts, plays, gigs etc, are free. Tourists, visitors should throng these open, ticket-less venues. Surely it is not too much to ask for a cheap, small, easily-available-everywhere list of all exhibitions? I'm told this could be done for as little as £2k. With a total budget of £735,969 – bloody hell, as a friend said, two thousand is very small beer.